Life in the NA3HL is far from glamorous, but the young men who play in the league are happy to be there. Between the bus rides, traveling to cramped arenas in small Midwestern towns, and the unorthodox living situations for the teenagers that comprise the league, a passion and a dream is what drives them.
Brendan Studioso and Jimmy McDermott are two players who have been in the league awhile. Both are forwards for the North Iowa Bulls, and are in their third year playing in the NA3HL. Studioso, originally from Mukilteo, Washington, has been with the Bulls since 2016, while McDermott is in his first year in Iowa, having spent each of the previous two seasons as a Wisconsin Whaler.
Players in the NA3HL, as with most minor-league hockey leagues, are placed with hosts, called “billet families”. For the players, who would be attending high school and living a more conventional life if it weren’t for hockey, moving into a new families’ house at 16 years old is a big adjustment, one that not everyone can make.
“I moved away when I was 16, so I definitely missed out on a lot of high school experiences,” McDermott said. “I missed out on a few dances and things like that, but I got to experience a whole new world, living with a billet family and first time moving into someones house was kind of weird ... I learned how to cook, I learned how to do my laundry, things like that that I wouldn’t have gotten if I was just living at home at that age. There’s some ups and downs, but I wouldn’t trade this opportunity for the world.”
With the players in the league being so young, and often away from home for the first time, the Bulls start the year with an extra large roster, in anticipation of the inevitable departure of a homesick player.
“We bring in extra guys early in the year,” head coach Todd Sanden said. “Our roster size is 25, we’ll start the season with 27, 28, 29 guys because every year one or two kids, get homesick. They are away from home for an extended time for the first time in their life ... Typically we see that in the first month. If kids make it through the first month, they’re pretty well settled in, and got the routine.”
The NA3HL is pretty low on the minor league rungs. Players in the league are hoping to either get a call-up to the NAHL, the NA3HL’s parent league, or to get a chance to play college hockey. So far this season, the Bulls have had four players sign NAHL tenders, the most recent being Carter Wagner, who signed with the Odessa Jackalopes in January.
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“We have been fortunate enough to have some guys move up in the junior ranks, and achieve NCAA Division I opportunities, some of them scholarships,” Sanden said. “That development opportunity and the advancement opportunity is here. I don’t think we go after kids thinking, the last team they’re going to play on is the North Iowa Bulls. We’re looking for kids that are motivated to take their game to a whole other level.”
Studioso ranks fifth all-time in goals scored for the Bulls, and hopes to rewrite the record books by the time his stint with the Bulls comes to an end, but he wants any of his successes to be shared by his team.
“Any goal that anybody has had year, I’d obviously love to break, but at the end of the day, its team success,” Studioso said. "I definitely want to put the team in front of me, but most of those records are going to help us win, so I’d love to get some of those, for sure.”
McDermott, in his first year as a Bull, is playing his first season away from his father, Tom, who is the coach of the Whalers. For players like McDermott and Studioso, who have been in the league for awhile, the bus rides and the on-the-move lifestyle of the junior league hockey player are something that bring them closer to their teammates.
“It’s definitely an adjustment at first, but if you look back at the end of the career, the bus rides are really where you get to bond with the guys,” Studioso said. “Everybody is in that enclosed area. That’s the best time you bond with everybody. Before the games, but especially after a win, where I feel like everybody is fired up on the bus. We play cards, or just hang out in the back. That’s the best time to bond.”
In the junior leagues, the hours and the bus rides are long, but the stories are memorable. McDermott told the story of the first time he played in Mason City, as a 16-year-old member of the Whalers.
“We had a line brawl down in the corner, the fans were all going nuts, a couple of beers got thrown on the ice,” McDermott said. “I was only 16 at the time. I was like ‘Woah’. A junior in high school. This is crazy. Fans were like following our bus home, people screaming at us, and throwing stuff at our bus. It was one of those experiences that you hear stories about. The first time I played here was their home opener. Step on the ice and there’s a thousand people already here, booing you.”
Throughout the lower minor leagues of most sports, the players get paid either very little, or nothing at all, in the case of college sports. The NA3HL is pay to play, with fees going to the league to help cover the cost of ice time, travel to games, and lodging to host families. Costs can run in excess of $5,000. For the players and their families back home, the chance to get exposure and hopefully move up to the NAHL or college is worth it.
“You know the chances of that happening are small, but you always have that hope that you can make your dreams come true,” McDermott said. “Whether you catch a break, even in North Iowa and throughout our league, guys when it looked tough all of a sudden got the right break or found the right fit, and wound up where every player dreams of being, at the Division I level or at the pro level.”